From augmented reality fitting rooms to designer clothes for gaming avatars and digital looks to post on social media, fashion designers are going beyond the physical. But, is ‘screenwear’ the sustainable future of fashion or just another passing trend?
A model is walking on a New York street, wearing a metallic poncho that floats and glimmers in the wind. In the store window behind, however, the model’s reflection shows only a black bodysuit and leggings. The poncho doesn’t exist in the physical world: it’s a digital creation being tested for the ‘screenwear’ try-on app ZERO10. Though not yet seamless — it’s still a little glitchy when the model moves — the clip offers a glimpse into the future of digital fashion, and perhaps the future of fashion as a whole.
The past year has seen an explosion in the digital fashion industry, largely due to lockdown forcing brands to reconsider how to engage with their customers and present their collections online. “I think it’s been kind of the big accelerant for the exploration of all things digital,” says Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at the London College of Fashion, whose team works with designer brands and retailers to utilise emerging technology. “I think there’s always been an interest in the area and the work that my team, in particular, has been doing, but I think there was kind of a sense of, yeah, maybe one day that will be important for us.”
That day arrived sooner than many brands had anticipated thanks to the pandemic, and their responses varied. In some cases, the solution was as rudimentary as live-streaming catwalk shows on YouTube, while others sought more creative ways to showcase their designs, building 3D models for their product catalogues and styling collections on digital avatars instead of real-life models.
Lockdown also drove a surge in gaming, with the social simulation game Animal Crossing becoming a viral sensation last summer, inspiring users to render catwalk looks as gaming ‘skins’ for their avatars, and drawing in the likes of Valentino and Marc Jacobs to create custom pieces.
The fashion industry has slowly realised that the gaming world offers an immediate consumer base — and one that is more female-dominated than outdated stereotypes would suggest.
According to data from influencer marketing agency Mediakix, 63pc of mobile gamers are women, while a report by app marketing agency Liftoff found that female gamers are 79pc more likely to make an in-app purchase.
Paying for digital garments is already normalised on Fortnite and Roblox — last month, a limited-edition version of Gucci’s Dionysus bag resold on the gaming platform for 350,000 Robux (an in-game currency). This roughly converts to €3,400 — considerably more than the €2,800 you’d pay for the physical version.
As well as Roblox, Gucci has collaborated with Drest, a fashion styling game in which users can dress up models Irina Shayk or Precious Lee in luxury items from the likes of Versace, Tom Ford and Simone Rocha. Having chosen the clothing, hair and make-up and styling, the users then release their finished look to be rated by the rest of the community.
Drest was created by Lucy Yeomans, former editor of Porter magazine and Harper’s Bazaar UK, who says she was inspired by FarmVille, the game that took over Facebook in 2009. Yeomans observes that the fashion industry has been slower to adapt to the digital space than other industries, such as beauty and wellness, but that it can learn a lot from the gaming world.
“This industry knows how to create deep customer experiences that engage and drive the behaviour of its players that go beyond the game,” she explains. “We can also learn how to connect with the somewhat elusive and digitally native Gen-Z audience. Gamification is part of their lives from day one — it’s even part of their schooling and education — so connecting with Gen Z requires true insight and understanding of their wants, needs and desires that gaming can unlock the key to.”
Other brands have branched into virtual try-on facilities, including offering augmented reality (AR) filters on Instagram and Snapchat, and partnering with dedicated AR fashion platforms, such as the Wanna Kicks app. The Belarus start-up allows users to browse 3D versions of trainers from Nike, adidas and New Balance, point their phone camera at their feet and instantly ‘wear’ the footwear of their choice.
In March, Wanna teamed up with Gucci to launch the fashion house’s first digital trainer, a neon high-top style that sold for between $9 and $12, and can be ‘worn’ on Roblox or virtual-reality social platforms.
“We wanted to promote the idea of purely digital fashion, to show that digital fashion is gaining momentum,” says Wanna’s chief executive Sergey Arkhangelskiy. Wanna Kicks’ target audience, he notes, is under 25, and he describes them as “enthusiasts and pioneers of digital fashion”. Wanna recently launched AR try-on for watches, and is continuing to work with brands to digitise their collections.
The next step, Arkhangelskiy says, is AR try-on technology for clothes. He points to a 2021 report by Deloitte Digital and Snap Inc, which found that AR-assisted purchases led to a 25pc decrease in real-world returns of products. “Future adoption of AR could potentially decrease the carbon footprint of the e-commerce industry,” he explains.
Sustainability is a key driver for many creators in this space, although the virtual world faces its own climate controversy. The average non-fungible token (NFT) — the digital collectibles that took the art scene by storm this spring — is estimated to consume the same amount of energy as a month’s worth of electricity for a person living in the EU. And, Ethereum, the cryptocurrency platform of choice for NFTs, has a carbon footprint comparable to that of Lebanon thanks to, among other things, the electricity used by the server farms needed to keep it going. Arkhangelskiy calls the Wanna team “NFT skeptics” and says they don’t have immediate plans to use it.
Meanwhile, other creators are hoping Ethereum’s move from the energy-demanding proof-of-work model to a proof-of-stake system (the method used to maintain the integrity of a cryptocurrency by ensuring that no one is double spending it or forging their own units) later this year may slash its carbon emissions a thousandfold.
One such example is The Fabricant, a digital fashion house based in Amsterdam, which designs genderless online-only clothes and collaborates with physical brands to bring them into the digital space. Michaela Larosse, The Fabricant’s head of content and strategy, says the “NFT conversation” is one the team has “probably every week” since its launch in 2018.
“I think we’re at least 75pc vegan, so it’s just instinctive to us to talk about these things,” she explains. “The way that we’re managing it is by doing small, limited-edition drops, because you have to experiment in a space to know what’s possible. When Ethereum switches to proof of stake, it will radicalise everything in this space.
“The amazing thing about blockchain, the amazing thing about NFTs, is it can build a new creative economy and really advocate in favour of creators,” she says, arguing that blockchain — a virtual and publicly accessible ledger that records cryptocurrency transactions in place of a traditional baking system — will empower artists and democratise the elite world of fashion design.
The Fabricant makes many of its patterns available free to its online community, so that creators at home can iterate their own versions. Larosse explains that as long as they have an internet connection and some pieces of hardware, designers can start making digital fashion without any need for expensive degrees, unpaid internships or high-priced fabrics, and can earn revenue by selling their work as NFTs.
Though the term NFT only recently entered mainstream lexicon, the first digital-only dress sold on the blockchain in 2019, for an eye-popping $9,500. Called ‘Iridescence’, it was created by The Fabricant, and later custom tailored onto an image submitted by the buyer.
“People found it pretty confronting, I have to say,” Larosse recalls of the sale. “It was interesting, because not only was digital fashion unfamiliar, we had to talk about being digitally dressed, and how you could buy and wear a garment that didn’t exist.”
The auction made news all over the world, marking a milestone in digital fashion and bringing the concept to global attention. Larosse notes that although much of the reaction was “outrage”, The Fabricant tries to “bring people into the conversation”.
“It opened up this whole new possibility, which seemed to people very futuristic, almost sci-fi,” she explains. “And it’s valid to have these questions, because it’s incredibly new. The easiest way to get into these conversations is by talking about what we’ve put up with in physical fashion — it’s such a toxic, wasteful industry, and there’s so much that needs to be rethought. The fashion world that we have was created for societies that existed hundreds of years ago, but now we have the capacity to do something very different.”
NFTs and cryptocurrency aren’t the only way to sell digital fashion, and the number of people who are actively trading in cryptocurrencies is still very small — Drinkwater notes that one estimate suggests 98pc of transactions on NFT marketplace Rarible are coming from a pool of 2,000 active users.
Outside of the NFT space, shoppers are buying digital fashion for gaming, but also for social media, from multi-brand retailers such as DressX, which has been dubbed the Net-a-Porter of digital fashion.
“That’s a very consumer-facing iteration of digital fashion where you can upload your image, you’ll be digitally fitted into the garment of your choice and you can share that image across socials to show you wearing something extraordinary, maybe at the fraction of the cost of a physical couture garment,” Larosse explains.
Still images may be popular on Instagram, but the next step will be real-time full-body tracking, as seen in the technology ZERO10 is testing for its app and the new lenses Snapchat launched last month, which Prada and Farfetch are already utilising for AR try-on tools.
“The number-one question that we get asked is: how can we wear it?” says Larosse. “We want a full-body filter so you can really have the full feeling of being digitally dressed — coming to a [online] meeting like this, and being able to show your identity in the way that you want to express it. As soon as the tech catches up, this will explode.”
Drinkwater observes that the “tipping point” will be the introduction of a wearable glass, which would allow wearers to download a digital wardrobe.
“We’re a little way off that yet, but the first iterations of hardware that will begin to support something like that are months away,” he explains. “Quality-wise, it will take a little while to go off, but you’re not talking years and years and years — this is probably a couple of years before we start seeing a real big shift.”
While the tech is coming along, the average consumer may still need some convincing to fork out for an online-only dress or pair of trainers.
“Obviously, people have this very intimate relationship with garments, but digital fashion is as much about self-expression and exploring your identity, because you can be whatever you want to be in a digital environment, there are no rules,” Larosse says.
“Your digital self might be a much wilder expression than your physical self, so you can explore different parts of your identity in the space. People just need to get their head around the idea and view it as a new kind of playground where they can really enjoy expressing themselves.”